The Leader's Code

Excellence in leadership—grounded in science

A Key to Success—With Interest

Maximizing performance and sustainability

There is a reason that the phrase “Do what you love and the money will follow” is a popular piece of business advice. People who enjoy their jobs generally find the work interesting and engaging, and people who are interested in what they do are more likely to enjoy their jobs. However, recent research from Duke University adds another piece to this puzzle, highlighting how our level of interest in our daily tasks is linked to how successfully we perform them. Not only does interest maximize our performance, it also acts as a buffer against burning out.

In their first study, doctoral student Paul O’Keefe and associate professor Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia asked over 150 individuals to work on a set of word puzzles. Before engaging in the task, they were asked how much they thought they would enjoy the activity. Once these ratings were obtained, the participants set out to solve the puzzles, which were described as either important (e.g., their solution was valuable/purposeful) or not (e.g., no real benefit was shared).

People who thought they would enjoy the task and solved the ‘valuable’ puzzles, achieved significantly higher levels of performance than their counterparts. More importantly, the reason for their elevated performance was not due to their working harder, but rather being more efficient (i.e. they had a high intensity focus).

Following this revelation, the researchers wanted to determine whether these individuals would be worn out as a result of this heightened level of focus. To test this idea, they replicated the experiment again, but this time, after the participants had completed solving the puzzles, they were asked to squeeze a hand grip (often used for exercise) to see how long they could hold it.

Once again, the “high-interest” individuals who felt the word puzzles would be highly enjoyable and worked on the ‘valuable’ puzzles were able to squeeze the grip the longest. This test of self-control demonstrated that these individuals still had a high level of engagement following the cognitive task.

On the flip side, people who reported that they were uninterested in the task did not perform as well. Furthermore, they also were the most exhausted at the end of the study, as evidenced by their shorter squeeze times.

Implications

What do these findings mean for us on a practical level?

First and foremost, the above study suggests that it is important for us to find some level of interest (or anticipated interest) in our activities. If this interest is not immediately evident, take some time to find something of interest within the task by breaking it down into smaller components. Find elements of it to be excited about. This will help to maximize our performance, as well as our energy level.

If you cannot find anything/little of interest in the task, and if you have the resources, seriously consider delegating the activity to someone who does. Not only will someone else perform at a level higher than yours, you can conserve your strength for the most innately interesting activities in which you can be at your best.

If you are in a leadership position within an organization, make sure you take the time to find out what excites and interests each member of your team. This can be invaluable, especially when it comes to assigning duties and responsibilities for shared projects. If certain members of your group are more data-oriented, make sure they are the ones working on the spreadsheets and number-crunching. If some individuals relish ‘client-facing work,’ maximize the time they can be engaged with others. Matching the tasks with the resources most interested in performing them will likely result in a higher quality outcome and more engaged staff.

Last but not least, the research also highlights the importance of providing the meaning behind the task. Remember that the benefits were only gained when a task was both enjoyable and valuable. Take the time to explain to your team members why the task is critical to the success of the organization. If it is a ‘personal project,’ ensure you are clear on the purpose behind the project and its importance.

Maximizing our performance and sustainable effort is something we are constantly striving for. Recent research shows that both interest and meaning allow us to maintain a high level of focus and engagement both during and after a task. However, not every task is inherently interesting to everyone. Seeking out activities that hold our attention and passing tasks along to those who are interested in them allows for a high level of productivity and a more successful outcome. So find the element of enjoyment in your tasks and success will follow – with interest.

 

Craig Dowden holds a Ph.D. in Psychology with a specialization in business.

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